All foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong will have to be vaccinated before their contracts can be renewed, the government announced on Friday as it ordered them to undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing by May 9.
The tough new policy in response to the worrying emergence of coronavirus variants in the city means domestic helpers applying for work visas from overseas will have to be vaccinated first, with details to be announced later by labour and immigration authorities.
Two foreign domestic workers from the Philippines have been confirmed to be infected with mutated strains so far in Hong Kong, one of them contracted locally from an unknown source, while at least 10 imported Covid-19 infections previously recorded in the city have been found to carry a variant suspected to be behind the current surge devastating India.
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The compulsory testing and vaccination announcement sparked an uproar among the city’s 370,000 domestic workers, with a union leader accusing the authorities of being “discriminatory” and “blackmailing” them into getting inoculated.
Authorities imposed the new rule a day after a 39-year-old domestic worker was confirmed to be the first untraceable case of a mutated strain contracted locally, prompting the quarantine of 950 people from a residential block in Tung Chung. All of them tested negative.
The other domestic worker was confirmed to be infected with a variant last Friday after having arrived recently from the Philippines.
Just hours before the announcement, Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong warned of a potential fifth wave of infections and said the government might need to look into tightening social-distancing measures again if local cases rose rapidly.
The coming two weeks were crucial as more infectious variants were involved, he said. “Confirmed cases could spike in a short period if a fifth wave is indeed occurring. Hopefully that will not happen,” said Hui, a government adviser on the pandemic.
Labour minister Dr Law Chi-kwong described domestic workers as being in a “high-risk group”.
“They mainly hang out with their friends during their holidays. If they are infected, that can likely lead to cross-family infections,” he told a press briefing.
“In the long run, we need to think about how to get more domestic workers vaccinated. We will impose new requirements when they apply for work visas, including that they must get inoculated with recognised vaccines when they renew their contracts.”
While Law was not clear on whether new helpers would need to get vaccinated before arrival, a government source later confirmed the requirement would be implemented.
He admitted there would be challenges on the inoculation requirement, not least because of a shortage of vaccines in the Philippines and Indonesia, the two main countries sending domestic workers to the city. Announcements would be made in the future, he said.
“Considering how challenging it is for us to even arrange testing and vaccinations for outlying islands in Hong Kong, it will be almost impossible to arrange vaccinations … in different islands in the Philippines. It is practically not possible,” he said.
About 500 domestic workers renew their contracts every day in Hong Kong.
Requesting helpers to get vaccinated was not too much to ask, Law said, adding: “They can choose not to work in Hong Kong. They are not Hong Kong residents.”
Health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee defended the need for helpers to undergo testing by May 9, calling it a “prudent” measure.
“The reason we are testing foreign domestic workers is, first of all, this is the second domestic worker we have identified that has the new variant in Hong Kong,” Chan said.
“According to some contact-tracing information, there was some mingling of the different domestic workers together.”
Those who had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine for at least 14 days could be exempted from the arrangement, she said. Those who had been tested on Friday would also be exempted.
Pressed on whether the government would tighten social-distancing measures, Chan said the recent easing under a “vaccine bubble” scheme only applied to those who had been inoculated.
Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, said he was shocked the government had made such “unfair” and “shameful” decisions regarding helpers.
“The government knows migrant workers are from a vulnerable sector and it is blackmailing us,” said Villanueva, a domestic worker.
“You get vaccinated or you don’t get your visa. This is blackmailing. Will the government do this to other people? Will the government do that to pilots and bankers? No. This is ridiculous.”
The city confirmed four new infections on Friday, taking the overall tally of cases to 11,774, with 209 related deaths.
Two of the latest cases were local – the helper in Tung Chung and her employers’ 10-month-old baby girl. The two imported infections came from India and Nepal. Fewer than five people tested preliminary-positive.
Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin of the Centre for Health Protection said 89 people who attended church with the helper had also been sent for quarantine.
Polytechnic University’s Dr Gilman Siu Kit-hang said he had obtained viral samples from the helper to conduct genomic sequencing in a bid to identify her infection source.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health reported that a 58-year-old woman, a cancer patient, who received her second BioNTech jab on April 12 died on Friday, but there was no clinical proof the death was caused by the vaccine. She was the 27th person to have died after vaccination, but no causality between the jabs and the deaths has been established.
The woman had suffered from myelofibrosis, a rare type of blood cancer, and nasopharyngeal cancer. She had a cough and fever on April 19 and was initially diagnosed with a lung infection.
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